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Journal of No. 118

April 1st, 2018

Ninefox Gambit & The Righteous Mind @ 05:34 pm

 Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee, is the first of a series (Machineries of Empire - two of three written) of SF set in a distinct and weird universe. It shares with Archivist Wasp some mixing of fantasy and SF (at least as I see it). The milieu is of a spacefaring humanity, but one of the bizarre notions is that society is organized by a calendar. And the not-us make use of 'heretical' calendars. And these calendars have real-world effects... certain activities are more successful or auspicious depending on the date. Although the details are not described, the tastily bizarre feel of a religion (or astrology) tied to calendrical minutiae is interesting.

There are also multiple (well six) families or castes in the Hexarchy, each with its own stereotyped strengths, though many of the characters we see are more of the exception to the rule variety. Our heroine is a soldier-like Kel, known for having a 'formation instinct' that compels them to obey and to align into geometric formations (again that have connections to the calendar for when they are most effective). She is breveted well beyond her experience in order to, well, take on the ghost of an imprisoned genius-general and notorious war criminal. With his know-how, she/they lead a force to defeat some heretics. 

I found it absorbing and the lunacy of some of the world building enchanting. But setting up an ending of you and me against the world left me a little cold. Not sure I'll keep on with the series, but certainly well worthy of a Locus Award for Best First Novel.


The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt

A moral psychologist pulls apart the motivations that divide people on the issue of right and wrong. I found the first half of the book solid and enlightening, but it lost me a bit in the turn, and then regained some ground in the home stretch.

The first quarter does a good job establishing that Hume was closest to the truth when he said that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions [emotions]". In contrast to the uber-rational Plato and the shared (almost non-overlapping magisteria) angle that Haidt ascribes to Jefferson, quoting some tasty correspondence to a dalliance:

Respect for myself [the heart] now obliges me to recall you [the head] into the proper limits of your office. When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals. When the circle is to be squared, or the orbit of a comet to be traced; when the arch of greatest strength, or the solid of least resistance is to be investigated, take up the problem; it is yours; nature has given me no cognizance of it. In like manner, in denying to you the feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship, she has excluded you from their controul. To these she has adapted the mechanism of the heart. Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.

Haidt's own analogy is the rider and the elephant. The elephant is the emotions... lots of inertia and willfulness. The rider [rationality] in the howdah has limited control over the path of the elephant as it makes its moral judgments.

Next, he explores the roots of morality, and based on extensive testing, finds that they are related to [at least] six separate 'tastes' in explicit parallel to the four (or five) tastes of, er, taste. The moral sense combines our instincts regarding:


Although everyone probably rates each of these at a nonzero importance, the results of the studies shows an interesting political divide. American liberals care about the first three much more than the other three. American libertarians care primarily about the liberty/oppression taste. And American conservatives are much more balanced in considering all six tastes.

And here is the reason for so much mutual misunderstanding. With different moral axioms, naturally different conclusions come out. Haidt further describes that conservatives have an advantage, since they have more notes to play on (and liberals are somewhat blind to some of these notes).

While I think there's a lot of validity in what Haidt has built up in to Moral Foundations Theory, his next step goes amiss: his desire to tie this to evolutionary psychology. 

As he says earlier, "For example, in the past fifty years people in many Western societies have come to feel compassion in response to many more kinds of animal suffering, and they've come to feel disgust in response to many fewer kinds of sexual activity. The current triggers can change in a single generation, even though it would take many generations for genetic evolution to alter the design of the module and its original triggers."

Haidt talks about triggers of our evolved instincts, but I can't follow him here. He talks about our snake aversion instinct. It can be triggered by sticks or other objects. But in these cases, this is just a mistaken snake. But people of yesteryear were presumably not mistaken by being triggered by homosexuality. They didn't laugh at themselves (as one might, after jumping at a stick) when they saw it was just some tribadism, and there was no need to be disgusted. So, although Haidt tries to make the point that evolution can be fast. We know it can't be so fast it happens in a single living generation. Cultural evolution can be much faster.

Haidt is probably right that group selection got the short end of the stick for much of the 20th century, but I don't see the need to inject it into the development of these moral senses. Probably this is the genetic (so to speak) fallacy, but when he brings up the idea that Tibetans evolved rapidly to handle low oxygen environments, this brings up the idea that isolated groups of humans have evolved moralities that are inaccessible to the rest of us (any more than we can climb Everest unassisted, before we've had the chance to interbreed with the Sherpas). I don't see how this can be right. No doubt I'm more attuned to the rider than the elephant, but seeing how far moral opinion has changed over decades, it's hard to see a strong genetic component to that change. Riders can influence the elephants that much, anyway. And without looking a thousand years down the line, the influence of the riders will continue to be relevant for discussions we have today.

I"m boring myself at this point, so I'll bring it to a close, but I really did enjoy the insights of the first half as to what motivates people different from myself. With luck, this can be a bridge to communication.

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Journal of No. 118